Saturday, August 6, 2016

Another Olympics

I first became aware of the Olympics in 1960. I was 12 at the time - not particularly interested in sports but able to appreciate the Olympics' pageantry. In the those days of only 1 TV in the home, everyone watched the same thing, and that summer Along with the 2 Conventions (which interested me much more), the Olympics was what we all watched. The fact that Rome, Italy, was the host city may also, of course, have been a factor in the degree of family interest. That worked out to my advantage in one respect. On the first day of school in September, my 8th-grade teacher, Sister Catherine, made us all write a composition on the Olympics. (We would write an "original composition" every morning. Generally speaking, I liked school, but I hated writing compositions!)

I remember the TV image of the Emperor at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the Black athletes' protest gesture at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, but it wasn't until 1972 when I paid serious attention, first watching the Opening ceremony and then being riveted by the drama of the Israeli athletes taken hostage and them murdered by Palestinian terrorists. I remember the bilingualism of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and the corresponding Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympics in LA. I remember absolutely nothing about the 1988 Seoul Olympics. For sentimental reasons I sympathized with those who thought Athens (instead of Atlanta) should have gotten the 1996 "Centennial" olympics, and so was happy for Athens when it got the 2004 Olympics. I barely took any notice of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and dismissed the opening show for the 2008 Bejing Olympics as totalitarian propaganda. On the other hand, I was enjoying my sabbatical program at Windsor Castle on July 6, 2005, when London was awarded the 2012 Olympics and so joined in the general rejoicing. Seven years later I watched the London ceremonies with interest and enjoyment. 

Through all those years, however, and increasingly so with each "Olympiad," I have become more and more convinced that these extravaganzas are a misguided waste of resources and attention. Baron Pierre de Coubertin's classicist nostalgia to recreate the ancient olympics in modern form may have made some sense in an aristocratic culture of genteel athletic competition, but from the beginning the gulf between his olympic ideals and the actual olympic reality has been wide - and keeps getting wider. Far from promoting "peace through sport," the Olympics have always been highly politicized, have provided ever increasing opportunities for corruption and exploitation, and have more often than not left a sour after-taste behind them. Sure, we could all use a good show and some entertainment to take our minds off the election! But, even without the Zika virus, the insistence on putting on the Olympics in as hygienically challenged and politically problematic a place as Rio ought to give even enthusiasts for the ongoing olympic circus reason to pause. 

Hopefully, it will all go off well, and Rio will be a good experience for all involved. Personally, however, I have long sympathized with those who argue for confining the Olympics to one permanent site - a modern version of ancient Olympia, the religious sanctuary in Elis on the Peloponnese peninsula, where the actual ancient Olympics regularly took place from 776 BC to 393 AD. But that's probably my love for antiquity speaking, more than common sense.

But better than any of the proposed fixes, what about just abolishing them as a bad idea whose time has come and gone? Presumably, Emperor Theodosius the Great would agree. 

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